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Pandemic potential: Facts vs. fears regarding emerging viruses

Oklahoma public health workers — aware of our increasing global society — are keeping an eye on a bird flu virus known as H7N9. So far, it has been contained to China.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Modified: May 15, 2013 at 10:32 pm •  Published: May 16, 2013


H7N9 is a new bird flu virus causing serious illness in China, according to the CDC. As of the latest report on May 8, there were 131 confirmed cases of H7N9 with 32 deaths, according to the CDC.

However, the virus isn't spreading easily between people, and evidence shows most people have been infected after being exposed to birds or going to places like live bird markets, according to the CDC. There isn't a current vaccine for H7N9, but scientists are presently looking at how one could be developed.

Most bird flu viruses don't cause disease in humans, according to the World Health Organization. H7N9 is a subgroup of flu viruses that normally circulate among birds, according to WHO. Until recently, the virus hadn't been seen in people, but human infections have been detected, according to WHO.

Gillian Air, a University of Oklahoma professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, has studied flu viruses since the 1970s. Air said overall, her level of concern about H7N9 is low.

“The potential is there, and you've got to be careful because if it did take off, it would be very serious,” she said. “That's why there are obviously efforts to make a vaccine.”

The 2009 swine flu pandemic that killed more than 40 Oklahomans is the most recent example of a flu pandemic.

Air said from what's known about the flu virus, it's generally more likely that a virus that begins in pigs will be more likely to develop into a virus that can be transmitted from one person to another, versus a virus that begins in birds.

Normally, flu viruses in pigs infect only the people handling them, if they infect people at all, but they aren't generally transmittable from one person to another. However, the H1N1 virus did become transmittable from human to human.

“There has to be a level of concern, and there has to be a vaccine effort,” Air said. “But if I was asked to give the chances of it becoming a pandemic in humans, I think it's probably pretty low based on our experience for many years with these avian viruses, but you can never be sure, so you have to take precaution.”

by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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The potential is there, and you've got to be careful because if (the H7N9 virus) did take off, it would be very serious.”

Gillian Air,
University of Oklahoma professor of biochemistry and molecular biology


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